We don't usually think of Mario's when we're passing through Knightsville. After all, at the other end of Cranston Street you have Café Itri, L'osteria, and the famously out-of-the-way Mike's Kitchen. But, in the way that spontaneous dining decisions are often made, we were passing, we reminded each other of a pleasant experience there, and we pulled over.
MMMM One of Mario’s tempting dishes.
The place is small, given a warm atmosphere with plum walls and a bare wood ceiling, further civilized by strategic greenery. We were there the day after Valentine's Day, so maybe that's why there were single red roses in each table's vase. The petals were turned from wood, which you can read as a metaphor for eternal love or an ingenious method for not having to buy real roses. There are cloth napkins at lunchtime and bistro paper over the tablecloths. This was a place that was going to take care of us. We were further encouraged by overhearing a woman saying to her husband, "I never liked garlic mashed potatoes until I had them here."
Our waitress, Carol Santilli, opened this place 10 years ago with her husband and chef, Mario, with son Mario Jr. in the kitchen. Restaurants have come and gone as the economy has gone up and down. When the nearby Cranston Print Works went out of business, so too did most of their lunch business. They stopped serving lunches in the summer doldrums but resumed in November.
Our last meal there was a few years ago, with foodie friends who had recommended the place. They oohed over memories of bruschetta with white beans and grilled chicken, they ahhed about veal and peas over perfectly cooked angel hair pasta. Everything was fine except for some ironic linguini, way undercooked this time. Chunky veal Bolognese in a savory tomato sauce was tempted me away, no kidding, from my lightly floured, olive-oil-seared ribeye. And Johnnie wasn't about to flick her chicken with broccoli rabe off her plate either.
The current dinner menu has a good variety of pasta preparations ($16.95-$19.95). The baked penne rustica comes replete with jumbo shrimp, grilled chicken, and Italian ham in a pink vodka sauce. The baked gnocchi doesn't come alone, either, but rather with thin slices of fried eggplant under the mozzarella. The entrées ($16.95-$22.95), more than half of which are veal or chicken, include a clever mixed grill: chicken breast, veal, and scallops, grilled with a lemon and herb butter sauce — every component benefiting from the lemon tang.
On this visit, Johnnie's fond broccoli memory was still echoing, so we started with the rabe portobello ($9.95). The appetizer was large enough to require sharing, which was fine with me. The rabe was cooked to tenderness, topped with shreds of sharp provolone for a nice contrasting bite, and there were plenty of thick strips of the mushroom. (Another dinnertime appetizer, the portobello "Big Mac" we enjoyed the last time, remains: caps layered with grilled vegetables and mozzarella. Highly recommendable.)
She also chose the chicken Florentine ($10.95), which I so loved from my limited sampling that I'll definitely order it on our next visit. The chicken breasts were delicately sautéed in a sauce that perfectly balanced lemon brightness with the sweet heft of sherry. Between the accompanying spinach and the creamy risotto, hardly a molecule of the sauce went to waste.